Use Your Words (correctly)

Have you ever wanted to correct someone’s grammar, interject in the middle of an argument to let a friend (or worse, a co-worker!) know they’ve used the wrong word, or call someone to let them know there’s no apostrophe “s” after their last name (hey there – got your Christmas card, but…)? These are the things that plague me. Words (and grammar) are SO POWERFUL. We use them to soothe or we can use them to hurt. I write to describe a home to a potential buyer, and I choose my words carefully to make a point to my kids. The words we use, say or write, can make or break our point. And, a misplaced punctuation mark can change a sentence completely. A simple comma mistake turns this sentence into something entirely different: Let’s Eat Grandpa! Yikes! But, “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” is perfect when summoning a loved one to dinner as opposed to eating them.


From 1999-2000 I took a job as an assistant development director at a small private school in tony Atherton, CA. My job was to work with a committee of parents (who happened to be some of the biggest names in Silicon valley) to roll out a huge capital campaign. I had left my job in construction management to follow my heart, doing something I really loved – fundraising. I found myself in the enviable position of working alongside an incredibly smart, talented woman named Wendy with a knack for coaxing donors to open their wallets without asking and a penchant for choosing just the right words.

About midway through our first year working together, I submitted a writing piece to Wendy for her approval. She gave it back to me with a few notes and I returned it to her with a sticky note with one word; alright. Now, we all say this. A LOT. But, many do not know (or don’t care) – “alright” isn’t a word – it’s two words. Much like “a lot”, it has a space between words and I had either forgotten this, or had chosen to use my slang alright. Wendy pointed out (not too gently, as I recall) my inaccuracy and we had a very lively discussion on the subject for… the next year. She made her point clearly by opening her dictionary to show me. I will never forget that day – I can tell you what I was wearing, where I was sitting, and that I was crunching on a Snyder’s hard pretzel. It was a moment in time and an incredible lesson that I still carry with me about using the English language. Fast-forward 18 years, and that particular slang is used constantly via text, and every social platform you can think of. There’s even a show called “The Kids Are Alright” – which just kills me every time I see the commercial. Wendy is no doubt wagging her finger at the television.

From my own personal Webster’s Dictionary

This has been on my mind a lot recently as I have been proofreading my son’s college essays. I have never stopped correcting people on this subject because Wendy was right. If you want to make your point, you say it correctly. And, if you’re submitting something in writing – make sure it’s right! (As I write this, I am hoping my grammar in this post is all right!) See what I did there? One of my favorite traditions is receiving holiday cards and posting them on our kitchen cupboards. When I open a card with the last name printed incorrectly (there’s always a small handful!), I immediately take a photo of it and send it to my sisters – the other two grammar police in my squad. “Happy Holidays from the Smith’s!” earns you a spot on the lower cabinets out of our direct line of sight (the grammatical horror!). *This is a generic example! If you’re reading this and your last name is Smith – I am not talking about you!

A few years ago, I visited a client and spotted a plaque they had made affixed to a post in the backyard – their family name including an apostrophe “s” with the year their family had been established. Now if it had been their name with an apostrophe and the word “garden” below it – it would have indicated that it was their garden. No problem! While it hurt, there are times when you can say nothing. I did say a grammar prayer for them. Never give up hope.


Now that I have one child that’s gone through the college essay process, another one about to start his college prep journey, and a freshman-aged daughter that loves to write but isn’t so skilled in that area yet – I have whipped out my favorite book. The best people to ask about grammar, writing and punctuation are William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White – co-authors of the 1957 edition of “The Elements of Style”. The original was written as a class companion by Strunk when he was a professor at Cornell and it has been reprinted countless times and still holds up in today’s world. White wrote the introduction (for his old professor) and edited the book for a 1957 reprint. White wrote in the Introduction: “It was Will Strunk’s parvum opus, his attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin”. And that is indeed true. The book is a slim bible everyone should have – especially my high school-aged children.

When I’m writing, I ask myself often, what would Strunk and White say? This book was thrust upon me in 6th grade by the most memorable of all teachers I have ever encountered – Ann Esselstyn. Her claim to fame was that Carl Sandburg was her relative and she cared about the ladies of her class never ending a sentence with a preposition (this is argued among many!). From a very lengthy song about every preposition out there, (aboard, about, above, across, after, against, along, amid, among, around, at, as…and on alphabetically until the last available letter in the alphabet) to a terrific and often recalled sentence about “i” before “e” exceptions: “Neither leisurely foreigner seized either package of counterfeit money on the weird heights of Raleigh”. It worked. 36 years later – I still remember most things she taught us. Thanks Mrs. Esselstyn! I use what I learned then as a tool to catapult my business. It gives me a sales advantage because I write interesting remarks for my listings and have the ability to color a picture with words for my clients when shopping for a home. When I speak at my networking group or in a meeting in the office, I’m confident of my use of the English language. I’m always trying to improve my writing skills, but with little helpers like The Elements of Style, teachers and co-workers that also love language, I have a leg up. There are a ton of great books out there including a more updated version of the original Elements book, but there’s something about my yellowed copy that really makes me smile. Check out Amazon for lots of fun books!

“It is an old observation, that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules.”

William Strunk Jr.

When I left my job at that private school in June of 2000 to have my first child, Wendy presented me with what would become one of my most cherished treasures. It’s huge and clunky, and it’s been to 4 houses and made it to Dallas and back to Seattle. It’s an enormous unabridged second edition Webster’s Dictionary (it’s okay that there’s an apostrophe there!). The note Wendy took the time to write inside is so special. I really appreciate the things she taught me and I always think of her when I correct my daughter’s texts with: “It’s all right Lil!”.

Rachael,

Just a little something to send you on your way in your new adventure, so you will never be at a loss for (and always manage to choose) the right WORDS. With much appreciation for your lively, vivacious and encouraging words and in friendship,

Wendy

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